Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part II.--His Youth
Chapter XX. Ericson Loses to Win.
If Mary St. John had been an ordinary woman, and if, notwithstanding, Robert had been in love with her, he would have done very little in preparation for the coming session. But although she now possessed him, although at times he only knew himself as loving her, there was such a mountain air of calm about her, such an outgoing divinity of peace, such a largely moulded harmony of being, that he could not love her otherwise than grandly. For her sake, weary with loving her, he would yet turn to his work, and, to be worthy of her, or rather, for he never dreamed of being worthy of her, to be worthy of leave to love her, would forget her enough to lay hold of some abstract truth of lines, angles, or symbols. A strange way of being in love, reader? You think so? I would there were more love like it: the world would be centuries nearer its redemption if a millionth part of the love in it were of the sort. All I insist, however, on my reader's believing is, that it showed, in a youth like Robert, not less but more love that he could go against love's sweetness for the sake of love's greatness. Literally, not figuratively, Robert would kiss the place where her foot had trod; but I know that once he rose from such a kiss 'to trace the hyperbola by means of a string.'
It had been arranged between Ericson and Robert, in Miss Napier's parlour, the old lady knitting beside, that Ericson should start, if possible, a week earlier than usual, and spend the difference with Robert at Rothieden. But then the old lady had opened her mouth and spoken. And I firmly believe, though little sign of tenderness passed between them, it was with an elder sister's feeling for Letty's admiration of the 'lan'less laird,' that she said as follows:--
'Dinna ye think, Mr. Ericson, it wad be but fair to come to us neist time? Mistress Faukner, honest lady, an' lang hae I kent her, 's no sae auld a frien' to you, Mr. Ericson, as oorsel's--nae offence to her, ye ken. A'body canna be frien's to a'body, ane as lang 's anither, ye ken.'
''Deed I maun alloo, Miss Naper,' interposed Robert, 'it's only fair. Ye see, Mr. Ericson, I cud see as muckle o' ye almost, the tae way as the tither. Miss Naper maks me welcome as weel's you.'
'An' I will mak ye welcome, Robert, as lang's ye're a gude lad, as ye are, and gang na efter--nae ill gait. But lat me hear o' yer doin' as sae mony young gentlemen do, espeacially whan they're ta'en up by their rich relations, an', public-hoose as this is, I'll close the door o' 't i' yer face.'
'Bless me, Miss Naper!' said Robert, 'what hae I dune to set ye at me that gait? Faith, I dinna ken what ye mean.'
'Nae mair do I, laddie. I hae naething against ye whatever. Only ye see auld fowk luiks aheid, an' wad fain be as sure o' what's to come as o' what's gane.'
'Ye maun bide for that, I doobt,' said Robert.
'Laddie,' retorted Miss Napier, 'ye hae mair sense nor ye hae ony richt till. Haud the tongue o' ye. Mr. Ericson 's to come here neist.'
And the old lady laughed such good humour into her stocking-sole, that the foot destined to wear it ought never to have been cold while it lasted. So it was then settled; and a week before Robert was to start for Aberdeen, Ericson walked into The Boar's Head. Half-an-hour after that, Crookit Caumill was shown into the ga'le-room with the message to Maister Robert that Maister Ericson was come, and wanted to see him.
Robert pitched Hutton's Mathematics into the grate, sprung to his feet, all but embraced Crookit Caumill on the spot, and was deterred only by the perturbed look the man wore. Crookit Caumill was a very human creature, and hadn't a fault but the drink, Miss Napier said. And very little of that he would have had if she had been as active as she was willing.
'What's the maitter, Caumill?' asked Robert, in considerable alarm.
'Ow, naething, sir,' returned Campbell.
'What gars ye look like that, than?' insisted Robert.
'Ow, naething. But whan Miss Letty cried doon the close upo' me, she had her awpron till her een, an' I thocht something bude to be wrang; but I hadna the hert to speir.'
Robert darted to the door, and rushed to the inn, leaving Caumill describing iambi on the road behind him.
When he reached The Boar's Head there was nobody to be seen. He darted up the stair to the room where he had first waited upon Ericson.
Three or four maids stood at the door. He asked no question, but went in, a dreadful fear at his heart. Two of the sisters and Dr. Gow stood by the bed.
Ericson lay upon it, clear-eyed, and still. His cheek was flushed. The doctor looked round as Robert entered.
'Robert,' he said, 'you must keep your friend here quiet. He's broken a blood-vessel--walked too much, I suppose. He'll be all right soon, I hope; but we can't be too careful. Keep him quiet--that's the main thing. He mustn't speak a word.'
So saying he took his leave.
Ericson held out his thin hand. Robert grasped it. Ericson's lips moved as if he would speak.
'Dinna speik, Mr. Ericson,' said Miss Letty, whose tears were flowing unheeded down her cheeks, 'dinna speik. We a' ken what ye mean an' what ye want wi'oot that.'
Then she turned to Robert, and said in a whisper,
'Dr. Gow wadna hae ye sent for; but I kent weel eneuch 'at he wad be a' the quaieter gin ye war here. Jist gie a chap upo' the flure gin ye want onything, an' I'll be wi' ye in twa seconds.'
The sisters went away. Robert drew a chair beside the bed, and once more was nurse to his friend. The doctor had already bled him at the arm: such was the ordinary mode of treatment then.
Scarcely was he seated, when Ericson spoke--a smile flickering over his worn face.
'Robert, my boy,' he said.
'Dinna speak,' said Robert, in alarm; 'dinna speak, Mr. Ericson.'
'Nonsense,' returned Ericson, feebly. 'They're making a work about nothing. I've done as much twenty times since I saw you last, and I'm not dead yet. But I think it's coming.'
'What's coming?' asked Robert, rising in alarm.
'Nothing,' answered Ericson, soothingly,--'only death.--I should like to see Miss St. John once before I die. Do you think she would come and see me if I were really dying?'
'I'm sure she wad. But gin ye speik like this, Miss Letty winna lat me come near ye, no to say her. Oh, Mr. Ericson! gin ye dee, I sanna care to live.'
Bethinking himself that such was not the way to keep Ericson quiet, he repressed his emotion, sat down behind the curtain, and was silent. Ericson fell fast asleep. Robert crept from the room, and telling Miss Letty that he would return presently, went to Miss St. John.
'How can I go to Aberdeen without him?' he thought as he walked down the street.
Neither was a guide to the other; but the questioning of two may give just the needful points by which the parallax of a truth may be gained.
'Mr. Ericson's here, Miss St. John,' he said, the moment he was shown into her presence.
Her face flushed. Robert had never seen her look so beautiful.
'He's verra ill,' he added.
Her face grew pale--very pale.
'He asked if I thought you would go and see him--that is if he were going to die.'
A sunset flush, but faint as on the clouds of the east, rose over her pallor.
'I will go at once,' she said, rising.
'Na, na,' returned Robert, hastily. 'It has to be manage. It's no to be dune a' in a hurry. For ae thing, there's Dr. Gow says he maunna speak ae word; and for anither, there's Miss Letty 'ill jist be like a watch-dog to haud a'body oot ower frae 'im. We maun bide oor time. But gin ye say ye'll gang, that 'll content him i' the meantime. I'll tell him.'
'I will go any moment,' she said. 'Is he very ill?'
'I'm afraid he is. I doobt I'll hae to gang to Aberdeen withoot him.'
A week after, though he was better, his going was out of the question. Robert wanted to stay with him, but he would not hear of it. He would follow in a week or so, he said, and Robert must start fair with the rest of the semies.
But all the removal he was ever able to bear was to the 'red room,' the best in the house, opening, as I have already mentioned, from an outside stair in the archway. They put up a great screen inside the door, and there the lan'less laird lay like a lord.